Four Still Works on the Move


A Maryland court ruled on Mar. 24 that four Clyfford Still paintings from the estate of his widow, Patricia Alice Still, can be sold before her estate becomes accessioned by the Clyfford Still Museum, set to open in Denver late this year. The funds must be used to support the museum endowment and collection-related expenses. The museum filed a petition seeking the release of those works on Nov. 3, 2010, in Maryland, where the couple lived, and where virtually all of Still’s works have been stored since his death in 1980.

When and how the works will be sold has yet to be determined since, according to Still Museum director Dean Sobel, the decision came back sooner than expected. “We didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves because the court could’ve ruled in another direction,” he said. The pieces have yet to be appraised but, for comparison, two major Still canvases fetched $21.3 million and $14 million at Christie’s in 2006 and ’08, respectively.

In his will, Still specified his estate be given to an American city that would construct a museum dedicated to his work; he also forbade the sale, exchange or donation of works. Since these works come from his widow’s estate, the court ruled they are free from such restrictions. Until, that is, they become part of the museum’s collection. The preemptive move allows the museum to abide by the artist’s wishes and to sidestep censure from the Association of Art Museum Directors, which prohibits de-accessions for operational support.

After the artist’s death, Patricia Still gave away, sold or brought to auction 13 works he had bequeathed to her in order to maintain her collection and promote her husband’s legacy. One of those works, which failed to sell at auction in 1990, is among the four pieces. The canvases were selected to complement each other and are intended to be sold as a group. The museum has stated that it has a strong interest in keeping them in the public domain.

In 2004, Patricia Still designated Denver as the recipient of 750 paintings and 1,400 works on paper. The gift was facilitated by the artist’s nephew and Denver resident Curt Freed, and the wooing by then-mayor, now-governor John Hickenlooper. Patricia died a year later, and her estate also went to Denver. In addition to artworks, it includes Still’s archive and other documentation. Together, the two estates total some 2,400 artworks, estimated to account for 94 percent of Still’s oeuvre.

Still was notoriously picky about who could buy his works, and where and how they could be displayed. New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are the major public repositories. At the Met, the works are all hung in a single gallery devoted to the artist, who would not allow his paintings to be shown alongside those of other artists.

The two-story, 30,000-square-foot Clyfford Still Museum was designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture. It will be located next to the Daniel Libeskind-designed addition to the Denver Art Museum (DAM), allowing it to take advantage of the neighboring museum facilities. Among other restrictions, Still mandated that his museum not have a café, auditorium or gift shop. Sobel said that DAM has been acting as an informal consultant, but that an agreement is currently being finalized that will provide services like security and art handling.